The Revival of Classic 2-D Action Games

One of the less appreciated benefits of the ubiquitous online connections in the current generation of consoles is that it has helped to resuscitate some types of classic gameplay that had all but vanished over the prior two console generations.

Growing up as a gamer, when I wasn’t playing RPG’s or strategy games–which I wasn’t playing very often, since I didn’t have a PC and this was the pre-Final Fantasy VII Dark Age of Console RPGs, when it was something of an event for one to actually get an American release–I was playing 2-D action games like Ninja Gaiden and Contra or shoot ’em ups like Gradius and Sky Shark , or, a few years later, Axelay or Space Megaforce. (Or D-Force, when I was sufficiently bored and desperate to play something that even my preadolescent self could tell was godawful.) In arcades, I poured my money into shooters like Raiden or side-scrolling beat ’em ups like Final Fight or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or X-Men.

And by the late 90s or so, they were pretty much gone.

On consoles, they were the victims of  the transition from the predominantly 2-D sprite-based graphics of 16-bit systems like the Super NES and Sega Genesis to the next generation of systems. The Sony PlayStation, Nintendo 64, and Sega Saturn were all vastly better-equipped  for 3-D graphics and gameplay than their predecessors, and they were eager to show it off. Sony of America was particularly hostile to 2-D sprite-based games, which was part of the reason that a number of Japanese 2-D PlayStation games were never localized in the United States. (Or localized long after their original release: 2-D RPG Arc the Lad, which had a Japanese release in 1995 and an American release in 2002, is a prominent example.) 2-D sprites had a somewhat warmer reception on the Sega Saturn…but, well, how often do you hear people talk about the Saturn?

Meanwhile, in arcades, the overwhelming popularity of one-on-one fighters inspired by the success of the Street Fighter series eventually pushed out nearly everything else. They were like kudzu; one day you would see a few Street Fighter II cabinets sitting in the corner, and maybe one of the SNK fighting games, and when you came back a few weeks later the fighting games had spread uncontrollably through the arcade and driven out the previously existing ecosystem.

Which is why the rise of cheap, downloadable console games available on PlayStation Network and Xbox Live Arcade has been such a welcome development for me. It’s made games in niche genres with  modest budgets much more viable, and given them a venue to attract customers where they aren’t directly competing with the latest AAA releases. The result has been a satisfying resurgence of classic-style gameplay.

A good recent example is Moon Diver, a side-scrolling action/platformer. Reviews of it have been mixed, but I’ve enjoyed it a great deal. Players control one of four ninjas, each armed with a sword and various special attacks as they fight their way through hordes of enemies on a devastated future Earth. Characters are very acrobatic and have the ability to climb and move on walls, ceilings, and the bottoms of platforms. There’s lots of jumping around, collecting power ups to activate your special moves, and frantically mashing the attack button to mow down the oncoming hordes of enemies. It’s reminiscent of games like Strider, or perhaps Contra III: The Alien Wars with swords instead of guns. Aside from the advanced graphics and the ability to have up to four players through online co-op play, it’s not unlike something I might have played on the Super Nintendo.

Even the game’s rather vague plot and elliptical between-level cutscenes contributes to the old-school ambiance. I don’t know if that part was intentional or not, but it was fun either way.

Another recent favorite of mine is Gatling Gears, a scrolling overhead twin-stick shooter from Vanguard Games where you pilot a heavily armed mecha-like vehicle against vast waves of enemies in a steampunk-style world. It’s extremely intense, tons of fun, and the graphics are just gorgeous. If you enjoy unleashing massive amounts of firepower on vast hordes of bad guys, I highly recommend it.

Now, replicating the gameplay of this game on an 8-bit or 16-bit console would be problematic because of the two-joystick layout–you use one analog stick to maneuver and the other to aim and fire independently, in the style of Smash TV. But that’s a matter of controller design, rather than the limitations of that era’s technology; an arcade set-up of this game’s controls would have been quite manageable in that era.

The biggest gameplay difference made possible by modern technology is the sheer intensity of the game due to the large numbers of enemies and projectiles, both friendly and unfriendly, that can be on the screen. The SNES, like other consoles of its time, would suffer slowdown if the game had too many things moving around the screen at once.  If it had been forced to try to keep up with some of the larger battles in Gatling Gears, it probably would have exploded like an electronic version of that guy’s head in Scanners. All in all, though, the overall feel of the game would have seemed right at home on on my super Nintendo alongside a shooter like Firepower 2000 or in an arcade next to Mercs.

This isn’t intended as a lament for some past age when things were supposedly better; I continue to love video games as they’ve evolved since then. But I have also missed games like these, and it’s great to see the genre revitalized.